Much has already been said about Gandhi’s legacy and his impact not merely on the Indian Freedom Struggle, which is in itself no small feat, but on the world as a whole. Gandhi’s ideas and practices have influenced great leaders like Martin Luther King Jr. and Nelson Mandela, and have played a crucial role in effecting lasting changes in unfair societies. Sadly, and this is purely a personal reflection, the Mahatma’s legacy seems vibrant to the rest of the world while appearing to fade in India. Just cast a critical eye on the present Indian socio-political situation; where has the unity between Hindus and Muslims that Gandhi longed for gone? Where has the respect for other faiths gone? How come ahimsa and satyagraha have returned to being mere words without rich meaning?
India has forgotten the Mahatma that Gandhi was and has focused a lot of attention on the freedom fighter that he was. Our history textbooks, do not fail to highlight the impact Gandhi made on India’s freedom struggle but fail to point out effectively his contribution to Indian society. Exam questions ensure that students know well about the political demonstrations like the Dandi March, Non Cooperation Movement and Quit India Movement that Gandhi spearheaded; I’m yet to come across a question that invites students to think about Gandhi’s impact on India’s socio-religious situation.
In order to help get an idea about the Mahatma that Gandhi was, I wish to highlight three points that stand out in him:
First of all, Mahatma Gandhi was a symbol of unity in a nation that was torn apart by casteism, classism, regionalism, communalism and above all, colonialism. History bears witness to the impact that the figure and even the name of Gandhi, had on the Indian masses. Gandhi’s withdrawal of the Non Cooperation Movement as a result of the dastardly Chauri Chaura incident where 22 policemen were burnt alive, is a powerful example of his character as the Mahatma. A noble freedom fighter like Bhagat Singh would not, and in fact, did not approve of such a drastic step. Many Congress leaders including Jawaharlal Nehru himself felt that Gandhi made a huge mistake. But Gandhi was convinced of his actions. He did not support violence under any circumstances even if it potentially led to some good. It militated against his ethical and religious principles. This is the true nature of the Mahatma. Ethical and religious values come above political gain.
Second, Mahatma Gandhi loved India as a Mother and her people irrespective of their caste or creed. This is the true face of nationalism; a face that has been disfigured by divisions, jealousy, hatred, suspicion and violence. Nobody who loves their country can dare to discriminate against any of its citizens, and yet, isn’t the exact opposite happening today? Just look back at the last couple of years, forget the even blacker past decades; Indian society has been polarized to such an extent that people no longer see themselves as citizens protected by law. The law appears to be malleable to the interests of the prejudiced and uninformed majority. People forget that it is foolishness to say you love the mother while you drive away her children from their home!
Gandhi fought tooth and nail to keep India together but extreme elements ensured that the country tore apart at its seams. The narrative of the Mahatma on the unity of all people was countered by the one-sided politico-religious narrative that boasted of patriotism while showcasing its barbaric divisiveness. Gandhi was distraught when the country was divided along religious lines. He feared that the Indian society would also implode upon itself and thus, tried his level best to ensure that at least Hindu society did not crumble along with the Government.
Finally, Mahatma Gandhi was a man who walked the talk. It was not without solid reason that he captured the imagination of the nation. Gandhi’s actions were radical; he was not concerned with piecemeal changes. He was quick to perceive that if change had to be effected on a macro scale it had to begin with radical change on the micro scale. He made the statement “be the change you want to see in the world” famous not so much by repeating it time and again but by living it in everyday life. From his radical choice of loincloth from the earlier polished suits and shoes of a barrister to the walking across the length and breadth of the country rather than using a vehicle, Gandhi bespoke one thing very eloquently — a man is only as good as he practices what he preaches. What good would Gandhi’s call to boycott British goods have done had he not boycotted them from the very beginning himself? Can one imagine satyagraha taking its form had Gandhi not been among the first line of satyagrahis? This is the true mark of a Mahatma. He does not merely tell people the way; he shows them.
Gandhi does not invite anyone to become anything more than human. He insisted time and again on those things which are most human. Even in the face of British inhumanity, he challenged them on the very grounds they sought to trample on — theirs and their subjects’ humanity. “One must not lose faith in humanity. Humanity is like an ocean; if a few drops of the ocean are dirty, the ocean does not become dirty.”
Gandhi says it beautifully in his work All Men are Brothers, “Spirituality is not a matter of knowing scriptures and engaging in philosophical discussions. It is a matter of heart culture.” Gandhi saw the intrinsic link between spirituality and humanity and this vision marked him as a Mahatma. The celebration of his birth anniversary is a milestone and it demands a more serious reflection on his legacy and contribution. I’m convinced that words will never prove sufficiently how much one is moved by something or someone, it is the action that flows out from these feelings that really counts. It is up to us now to ‘be the change we want to see in the world.’
(Published on 07th October 2019, Volume XXXI, Issue 41)